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Fragile, don't touch

Egypt wants a precious ancient bust, but the MFA says no. A delicate matter just got more complicated.

By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / August 14, 2011

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CAIRO - In a smoky office a short drive from the Pyramids of Giza, Mohamed Saleh, once the director of Cairo’s Egyptian Museum and now the man in charge of the collections for a planned $550 million Grand Egyptian Museum, is asked how much he knows about the bust of Prince Ankhhaf. The precious 4,500-year-old statue, 20 inches tall, left Egypt decades ago and is now on prominent display at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Saleh nods, smiles, and opens his laptop.

Just a few clicks, and the stoic ancient face pops onto his screen.

Four words are all Saleh needs.

“It is a dream,’’ he says.

The dream is the idea of the Ankhhaf bust returning from Boston, where it has rested since 1927. The Egyptian government is demanding the statue’s return, and the MFA has refused.

But this conflict - one of many the MFA has faced over works in its permanent collection - has been further complicated by the recent tumult in the Egyptian government. And while some claims for ownership of works can be made on legal grounds, this one treads on murkier terrain. The bust of Ankhhaf was given to the MFA by a previous Egyptian government, so the current government has no legal case. Any appeal must be made on moral grounds: that the piece is part of Egypt’s patrimony, and belongs at home.

For now, Saleh, a soft-spoken cultural leader respected by both Egyptian and American curators, remains hopeful. He pulls out a thick document that shows the planned interior of the new museum, which is meant to hold 10,000 objects, range over more than a million square feet, and attract 5 million visitors a year when it opens in 2013, less than two miles from the Giza pyramids.

He points to a prominent spot at the top of a walkway leading visitors through the entrance. This is where he is planning to place the bust of Ankhhaf, a royal architect who is believed to have overseen the building of the Sphinx and the second pyramid of Giza. A glass wall will allow the new museum to display the bust in the shadow of that very pyramid.

Exceptional among treasures
There are countless treasures from Egypt, but only one bust of Ankhhaf.

The work is special, a limestone statue covered by a thin layer of reddish plaster. Artistically, what’s notable about the piece is the realistic depiction of the subject, not typical for works of the period. Ankhhaf’s hair is receding. His eyelids droop. There are muscles visible around his mouth.

It is the “most convincing example of individualized portraiture in the Pyramid Age,’’ Dows Dunham, MFA curator of Egyptian art, wrote in 1943, noting that the subject had the largest tomb in the royal cemetery in Giza.

But the piece is also incredibly delicate, which is why the MFA refuses to loan it to anyone, never mind send it permanently back to Egypt.

“This is not a question of Egypt,’’ said MFA director Malcolm Rogers. “It’s a question of the object and its integrity. It’s a great, great treasure and we don’t want to put it at risk.’’

In the emotionally charged debate over whether museums have collected looted works in the past - and how they have tried to make amends - the bust of Ankhhaf presents a new wrinkle. It was not stolen. The statue was excavated by a team from the MFA, Harvard University, and Egypt in 1925. In 1927, the Egyptian government gave it to the MFA as a thank you for the museum’s partnership with Harvard and the country in excavating the tomb of Queen Hetepheres in Giza.

In recent years, the MFA has shown that it is willing to return objects or make restitution if it is determined that a piece was probably stolen before arriving at the museum. Just this year, the MFA agreed to pay restitution to the heir of a Jewish art dealer killed at Auschwitz after determining that a 17th-century Dutch painting on display had been owned by the dealer and stolen by the Nazis. Last month, the museum confirmed that it will return to Turkey the top half of the “Weary Herakles’’ statue it has had on display since 1982, because all evidence points to it having been looted before being acquired by the MFA.

The path of the Ankhhaf bust, though, is no mystery. The MFA’s archives include photographs of the piece as it was found in the Egyptian ground in 1925.

“There is no way Ankhhaf should be lumped with something that was illegally obtained,’’ said Patty Gerstenblith, a DePaul University College of Law professor who is an expert on cultural property laws and served as an adviser to the State Department. “But there may be times when a country wants something back even when it was given and obtained legitimately.’’

Antiquities wish list
It started with a speech in Paris in 2005.

That’s when Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s head of antiquities, demanded the return of Ankhhaf in a speech at UNESCO.

Hawass is a world-famous - and controversial - archeologist, known not only for modernizing his country’s archeological sites but for launching an Indiana Jones-style clothing line and for his foray into reality television with “Chasing Mummies’’ on the History Channel.

In 2007, Hawass sent the MFA a letter asking for a short-term loan of the bust for the opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum. The MFA declined, stating that Ankhhaf was too fragile and therefore never traveled.

In response, Hawass ratcheted up his campaign, demanding the bust’s permanent return. He placed the Ankhhaf on a six-object wish list of antiquities for the new museum that included some of the most famous works in museum collections around the world, including the Rosetta Stone (currently at the British Museum) and the Bust of Nefertiti (at Berlin’s Neues Museum).

In April 2010 in Cairo, Hawass highlighted that list at what he called the “Conference on Stolen Antiquities,’’ attended by representatives from 25 countries. Headlines trumpeted his demands around the world.

Sitting at his desk on a recent afternoon, a copy of his loan request and the MFA’s rejection in front of him, Hawass raised his voice as he said the MFA’s rejection still angered him.

“The Boston Museum of Fine Arts is very famous for buying stolen artifacts all the time,’’ Hawass bellowed from his office one afternoon earlier this summer. “This is why Egypt will fight to get this stolen statue back.’’

When pressed, Hawass acknowledged that the Ankhhaf bust was not stolen.

Hawass lost his job last month as part of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf’s sweep of officials appointed by deposed president Hosni Mubarak. Conflicting reports from Egypt have had Hawass temporarily reinstalled to watch over the country’s museums and archeological sites until a successor is picked, but he said in a recent e-mail that “I already left my office.’’

With Hawass out, will the campaign continue for the return of Ankhhaf? No one knows. But last month, Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities announced that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York would return 19 artifacts discovered by a British archeologist from a tomb in 1922. The return came a year after an agreement struck by Hawass.

And there are those remaining in the government who believe it is only right to have the Ankhhaf bust returned to Egypt along with the other items on the list.

“Regardless of how they exited, they are icons that should be in Egypt,’’ said Sarah Marei, an inspector of antiquities with the Egyptian government. “It’s as if Egypt was gifted the Statue of Liberty’s arm with the torch by a president in the US at one time.’’

Peter Der Manuelian, professor of Egyptology at Harvard and until recently the director of the Giza Archives at the MFA, said he would favor the museum finding a way to loan the piece to Egypt.

“Is the bust too fragile?’’ he said. “Nowadays, conservators and shipping companies can do wonders.’’

As Manuelian sees it, the loan would serve an important symbolic purpose.

“It’s been a one-way street for a long time, with objects coming from Egypt and other places,’’ he said. “There’s been a history of imperialism and colonialism in Egypt, of foreign missions that came in and reaped the glory, and the Egyptians were left standing on the sidelines. Why couldn’t something come over to Egypt temporarily?’’

A case for the prince
As questions hover over Egypt’s future approach to antiquities claims, Rogers, the MFA director, remains steadfast on the Ankhhaf bust.

“We worked for three years on one tomb in Egypt,’’ said Rogers. “This extraordinary treasure came as a way of saying thank you. I personally think that in all we do, we’re honoring the Egyptian government’s understanding of our bond from all those years back.’’

Meanwhile the bust rests quietly in the MFA’s Old Kingdom Gallery. A giant fan blows in the corner on a recent afternoon, and the sculpture sits in a special glass case. Inside the case, the MFA has installed a machine for climate control. A gauge measures temperature and humidity.

Rita Freed, head of the MFA’s Department of the Ancient World, talks of the fragile nature of the bust. She notes that when other museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Louvre in Paris, have staged major shows featuring Egyptian antiquities, their curators never asked for the bust of Ankhhaf. It is understood that the piece will never move, says Freed.

In fact, when the piece needs to be examined, it isn’t brought to the museum’s conservation department. It stays in its case, with the conservators coming to Ankhhaf.

The reason the statue is so special, says Freed, is the thin layer of plaster, which gives the figure its distinctive features.

“It is amazing he survived given how fragile he is,’’ said Freed, standing in front of the bust on a recent afternoon. “This is a limestone core, covered in plaster. Plaster and limestone react to humidity in different ways. If this is subject to any kind of vibration or any dramatic change in humidity, the plaster’s going to separate from the limestone. And what are were going to have? We’re going to have a lump of limestone.’’

This is the second in a series of occasional articles on the complex issues surrounding some works in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.


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